Planning for Emergencies: How to Increase Survivability When Someone Gets Hurt
Most of us never plan for an accident to occur on the job site, and there is no way we can know how an individual or crew will respond to the trauma of seeing a teammate injured or killed.
That’s something I learned when my crew watched me take the combined induction from two energized 500,000-volt circuits for roughly 30 seconds. The incident tested the crew’s emergency preparedness, and in my opinion, we could have done better. Yes, I survived. But the choices made after my high-voltage contact could have proven deadly had my injuries been more significant.
On the morning of my incident, during the pre-job briefing, my crew members and I discussed our emergency action plan. Part of the plan was to utilize the contract helicopter we had on-site to transport an injured employee into town, where they could be met by an ambulance and taken to the hospital. But when my incident occurred, the shock of it got the best of the crew, and the plan inadvertently changed. A supervisor drove me 58 minutes through multiple cell service dead spots versus putting me on the 16-minute helicopter flight. That decision put me at greater risk and left my supervisor to deal with any medical issues that could have arisen while I was in transit.
Over time, I analyzed every decision that was made that day – and I came to realize we needed help. All of our brothers and sisters working out on the line need help to understand the importance of preparing for the worst-case scenario.
When I think about the choice that was made to drive me to the hospital rather than fly me out of the job site, I often wonder what created that shift in our plan. Why did we choose the path with greater risk? Instead of trying to understand the psychological facets of the event, I took ownership of this identified weakness and began to put my full effort into improving the way we plan for emergencies.
Initially, my focus was on rescue. Over 80% of my employer’s work locations are inaccessible to vehicles, so rescues must be conducted on foot or by helicopter. A quick search of our area’s aerial rescue resources brought me to the California Highway Patrol (CHP) Air Operations division. The agency has multiple helicopters stationed throughout our area of operations with the ability to assist us in just about every rescue scenario that could occur. I immediately contacted and began working with the CHP, hosting live demonstration rescues with our crews during which the helicopter pilot and paramedic described in detail what to expect when they arrive on-site.
That work proved very useful for us on the day that I received a phone call from a contractor company supervisor; one of the contractor’s linemen had broken his leg while hiking to a job site in a very remote area of California.
The contractor crew had been tasked with low-risk work for the day and began hiking up a steep incline to repair storm guys. On their way up the hill, one of the linemen stepped on a fallen tree and crushed the rotten timber, which caused him to fracture his leg below the knee. The remaining crew members initiated their emergency action plan by calling 911 and having Emergency Medical Services drive to their work location. When I received the call informing me of the incident, the supervisor told me that EMS was on-site, although it had taken 50 minutes for them to arrive due to the remoteness of the location. He then explained that the EMS crew couldn’t traverse the hill to help the fallen employee. So, I texted the supervisor the phone number of the local CHP Air Operations division and instructed him to call them, and they would assist in the rescue. Twenty-five minutes after we spoke, the supervisor called to thank me and let me know that the employee was safe and on his way to the hospital.
You can imagine my relief and excitement at hearing this. I was also curious about how the rescue went, so I met with the rescue team at their local headquarters to debrief. The team was just as excited as I was with how well the rescue went, and the timing couldn’t have been any better that day. When CHP received the call, they were airborne, training with another air unit nearby. Both helicopters paused their training and responded. I learned a valuable lesson from the feedback provided by the rescue team. The paramedic who had hoisted himself down to the injured employee asked me why he had felt a shocking sensation from the steel cable he was attached to. I jokingly responded, “I can give you thousands of reasons you would feel that.” As it turns out, the injured employee had been sitting between two energized transmission circuits with a combined total of over 290,000 volts – and that is right where the helicopter was lowering the paramedic. It quickly dawned on me how dangerous the rescue had been, even though it was successful, because the flight crew had not known what they were heading into.
In the event of an emergency, we must always try to ensure the area is safe for those responding to it. After gaining that insight, I arranged for training with all the CHP flight crews. We instructed them on fundamental theories of electricity and the system we work on. We also trained all line teams working on our property that if someone is injured on the right-of-way, we must do our best to move them outside the corridor and away from the induction field.
An ESCAPE Plan
Shortly after my contact incident, I was part of an investigation into a fatality. One aspect of the job site conditions stood out to me. The crew had been working in a mountainous area just off the side of a highway. The job site – which was accessed using a rope and climbing hand over hand – was approximately 50 yards up a steep hill. When EMS responded to the call, they arrived with a helicopter that didn’t have hoisting capabilities, and the EMS personnel were not in great physical shape. This is yet another example of why we need to better plan for emergencies.
So, what can we do to improve our planning? One approach is to use the acronym ESCAPE to guide you; in this case, it stands for egress, site conditions, communication, access, position and exercise. Considering these six elements – including asking the following questions – as you design your emergency action plan can significantly increase preparedness and the likelihood of a safe, timely rescue should an emergency occur.
How are we getting out of the job site? What challenges did we face on the way in? Is our access route the best for egress with an injured employee on a backboard? Don’t forget to think about environmental conditions. Can we utilize a helicopter for rescue with today’s weather conditions?
What can hinder our rescue or evacuation? Approach this like you would a job site hazard assessment. Did we pass through any locked gates? Is the area safe for EMS personnel to enter? If not, what challenges need to be addressed? It’s also good to note the condition of the electrical system you are working on.
How will we communicate our emergency? Communication is key to the injured person’s survivability. The first means would likely be cellular phone service, but sometimes we find ourselves outside the range of service. Have we prepared for that? Consider marking locations on the way to the job site where cell service is available.
The second means of communication is through GPS communication devices. These devices have allowed us to communicate with our teams and emergency responders without cell service.
How did we get to the job site? Were we able to drive right to it, or did we have to hike in? How challenging or technical was the access? By specifically noting the access route, it will be possible to communicate it to emergency responders. Dropping cones or hanging flags at turn points during access will help responders find us. You can tell them where you left the main road and then say, “Follow the flags.”
Where are we? Is there a street address available? If not, noting the nearest cross street will help EMS get closer to your location. Note the GPS coordinates, especially if helicopter rescue is part of your plan. Also provide your location in terms of the electrical system you are working on. For example, suppose an incident occurs that involves the circuit you’re working on. In that case, the utility dispatch operator will be better able to locate you if the line device you are working on and the nearest source side device are noted in the emergency action plan. Again, if this information is written down, it will minimize the possibility of providing the wrong location.
Last but certainly not least, we must take time to practice emergency rescue scenarios so that we are prepared when traumatic events arise. Our crews must practice pole-top and tower rescue, first aid and CPR so that the response is as close to second nature as possible. This will allow crews to increase the survivability of a fallen brother or sister should they get injured. By rehearsing a response to potential or actual danger, employees can remove some of the mystery and apprehension of an incident, enabling them to respond more effectively during an emergency.
About the Author: Lito Wilkins, CUSP, is a journeyman lineman, the safety director at International Line Builders Inc.’s Northern California Division and founder of Leading Safe Linemen LLC. As a survivor of a high-voltage contact, Wilkins shares his shocking awakening with line crews across the country so others can learn from his experience. Reach him at email@example.com.
- Harnessing AI: Crafting the Future of Safety Professionals
- Planning for Emergencies: How to Increase Survivability When Someone Gets Hurt
- Tip of the Spear: A Tactical Approach to Safety Leadership
- The Art of Safety: Self-Reliance
- August-September 2023 Q&A
- The End of the Pin-On Man Basket
- Equipotential or Total Isolation?